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Disabilities don’t keep bobsledders out of the race

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Aaron Lanningham, shown at the Utah Olympic Park, is the bobsled team's lead driver.

Aaron Lanningham, shown at the Utah Olympic Park, is the bobsled team’s lead driver.

Lisa Marie Miller, Deseret Morning News

Aaron Lanningham is a self-identified "speed freak" and has been for most of his life. He raced motorcycles, cars and even went for land-speed records.

Ten years ago, he was pulled from the fast lane and confined to a wheelchair.

He lost the use of his legs in a crash during a professional motorcycle race. He did not, he is quick to point out, lose his love for speed.

A few months ago he was told he could race again. This time it would be in a bobsled.

It was a new program, never before attempted, and to anyone's knowledge, it was the first in the world. The objective: To put an individual with a disability behind the controls of a bobsled and have them zoom down the track as fast as possible.

It made sense, explained Meeche White, director of the National Ability Center in Park City, who came up with the idea after the track at the Utah Olympic Park was built.

"Everyone was so busy with the Olympics at that time it wasn't possible. Now it is," she said.

The center offers more than 20 programs for individuals with disabilities, ranging from skiing to horseback riding.

In the bobsled program, about a dozen drivers and/or brakemen are in training. The youngest is 18, the oldest 45.

Lanningham is currently the lead driver. In the development of a bobsled driver, he's passed stage one, starting from the "Tourist Start," which takes very little driving skill, and is ready to move up to the "Women's Start," which requires a lot of skill and a yearning for speed. From there it's to the top and the "Men's Start."

It's a progression he said he's OK with, "but I'm anxious to go higher and go faster. I want to start from the top," he said.

Driving a bobsled, he explained, "is more like driving a car. I tried competing for three or four years on the monoski, but driving a bobsled is more along the lines of what I did best."

(The monoski — or sit-ski — is a chairlike device that sits on a single ski. Those with lower body immobility learn to ski using two outriggers — or ski poles with smaller skis on the base — for balance.)

One of White's objectives, along with creating a new programs for those with disabilities, is to someday see the bobsled as an event in the Paralympics.

There are now only five events in the Games, "and officials are anxious to introduce more . . . this is one that would fit in perfectly," she said. In order to have the bobsled included, seven other countries will need to develop bobsled programs.

Through the Ability Center, White received grants to purchase bobsleds. She was able to pick up two used two-person sleds that were in "excellent shape" at a reasonable price. The only required modification involved building a door in the hood of the sled that allowed staff members to position a driver's legs. A special board was also built to assist drivers getting in and out of the sled.

The field of drivers can include any individual with upper-body mobility. This would include paraplegics, amputees and individuals with spina bifida.

White is still looking at possibilities for the second rider or brakeman.

"The start is very important. What would work out well is to go with amputees or individuals who are visually impaired. They would be able to push off in the start and then jump into the sled," she explained.

It then comes down to finding individuals who can live with the speed.

"It's one thing to say you want to ride, but another to be stuck in a sled going down the track at 70 and 80 miles per hour. It's a pretty violent ride. It's one I'm looking forward to, but I don't think everyone feels the same way about speed," said Lanningham. "Driving a bobsled is like nothing I've done before. You're in such a closed environment. When they talk about 'tunnel vision,' I don't think you can get a better example than driving a bobsled. All your attention is focused straight ahead of you. But it's a rush."

It does require skill, training and a thirst for speed, which is what Lanningham is looking forward to quenching and what others in the futures will be able to sample — now and possibly someday in the Paralympics.

E-mail: grass@desnews.com